Chronic Daily Headache, Snoring, and Insomnia: Any Connection?

Researchers know there's a link, but aren't sure how to fix the problem.

Man snoring in airport
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People who snore on a regular basis are more likely to have headaches every day or nearly every day, research shows. In fact, snoring isn't the only sleep problem associated with daily or near-daily headaches — those with insomnia are more likely to have headaches, too.

What's the connection? Clinicians aren't sure, although some people find that treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that causes you to stop breathing multiple times during the night, can help curb the headaches.

What Headache Types Are Involved?

"Chronic daily headache," which means head pain that occurs at least 15 days out of every month, can involve several different types of headache. These include:

  • chronic tension-type headache
  • hemicrania continua (a headache on one side of your head that never really goes away
  • chronic migraine
  • new daily persistent headache (a daily headache affecting both sides of your head that's accompanied by mild nausea or by sensitivity to light or sound)

A study from back in 2003 found people who suffer from chronic daily headache are more likely to be habitual snorers than are people who suffer from what's called episodic headache (headaches that don't occur on a daily or near-daily basis). In that study, 24% of people with chronic daily headache said they "always snore," compared to just 14% of those with episodic headache.

The authors of that study said it's possible that sleep apnea may result in headaches during the day, but they noted that even in people without sleep apnea, habitual snoring has been associated with headache.

Disruptions in sleep — in other words, waking yourself up frequently because you snore or because you stop breathing — could be the "common mechanism" that leads to headaches from both snoring and sleep apnea, the researchers said.

Other Sleep Problems Also Linked

Insomnia seems to be even more closely linked to chronic daily headache than snoring, according to a study released in 2010.

In that study, which also compared people with chronic daily headache to people with less-frequent episodic headache, found more than two-thirds of those with chronic daily headache reported insomnia, compared with about 39% of those with episodic headache.

Daytime sleepiness and snoring also were more common in those with chronic daily headache than in those with episodic headache, the study said. Digging deeper into the data, the researchers found that low educational level and younger age at headache onset were independently associated with chronic headache.

A total of 43% of chronic daily headache sufferers had anxiety and/or depressive disorders, compared with 26% of those with episodic headache. This could be significant because medications that are used to treat pain or depression may aggravate the breathing problems found in some sleep disorders.

Treating the Problem

This is a bit of a chicken vs. egg conundrum: Chronic headache may cause sleep disorders, but sleep disorders also can cause headaches and trigger migraines, since both too little and too much sleep are known migraine triggers.

If you have obstructive sleep apnea, it's possible (but far from certain) that treating the sleep apnea with a positive air pressure, or PAP, device while you sleep may lessen or eliminate your headaches. Results on this have been mixed for headaches, although the PAP device should stop your snoring.

Otherwise, you may want to see a neurologist or a headache specialist who can help you with treatment for your chronic daily headaches. Future research hopefully will address the links between chronic daily headache, snoring and insomnia.

Sources:

Sancisi E et al. Increased prevalence of sleep disorders in chronic headache: a case-control study. Headache. 2010 Oct;50(9):1464-72.

Scher AI et al. Habitual snoring as a risk factor for chronic daily headache. Neurology. 2003 Apr 22;60(8):1366-8.

Stark CD et al. Sleep and chronic daily headache. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 2015 Jan;19(1):468.

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